Smoke clears: Stanford at Arizona State

The Pac-12 race has ended with Arizona State the champion of the South Division and Stanford the champ of the North. The Cardinal will visit the Sun Devils on Saturday with the winner going to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.

How we got here, well, it was quite a ride.

Consider: Oregon lost to Arizona, which lost to USC, which lost to Washington State, which lost to Oregon State, which lost to Washington, which lost to UCLA, which lost to Arizona State, which lost to Stanford, which lost to Utah, which lost to Oregon. You can include everyone but California, which beat no one in conference play, and Colorado, which beat only Cal.

Just about every team has a "regret" game, one that it believes strongly it should have won.

If Arizona State would have beaten Notre Dame, it might be in the national title mix as a contender for "best one-loss team." Stanford (USC or Utah) and Oregon (Arizona) can commiserate. The depth of the conference -- nine bowl-eligible teams for the first time -- is the biggest reason why the Pac-12 likely will have only one BCS bowl team for the first time since 2009.

Still, the Pac-12 title game is a good matchup of highly ranked teams, with seventh-ranked Stanford, the defending conference champion, coming in representing the old guard as a team that has played in three consecutive BCS bowl games, and No. 11 Arizona State entering as the hot-to-trot upstart trying to grab the program's first Rose Bowl berth since 1996.

A victory from Stanford, the conference's preseason co-favorite with Oregon, means business as usual. A victory from Arizona State, the preseason South Division co-favorite with UCLA, means the Pac-12 takes a southward shift. After two years or North domination, the South was 12-12 versus the North this fall.

An Arizona State win likely would make Todd Graham Pac-12 Coach of the Year. That would greatly pain his myriad critics, but it also might shift the story from his frequent coaching migrations to his talent as a program builder.

A Stanford win would further cement David Shaw's status as one of the nation's elite coaches.

Don't expect the game to look much like the Sept. 21 meeting, a 42-28 Stanford mashing, While the Sun Devils made a big comeback in the fourth quarter against the Cardinal backups to make the score respectable, they got dominated -- see a 39-7 count entering the final frame.

Arizona State is a different team since them, one of the hottest in the nation, riding a seven-game winning streak. The Cardinal has lost twice since then in games in which it was favored. Further, the Sun Sun Devils are favored by three points, in large part because they are playing at home, where they are 7-0 this season with an average margin of winning of 28 points per game.

The most obvious matchup is the Sun Devils' potent offense, which ranks No. 2 in the conference in scoring with 43.2 points per game, and the stout Cardinal defense, which ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 in scoring, yielding just 19.0 points per game.

Yet this one likely comes down to how the Sun Devils defense plays against the Stanford power running game.

In the first matchup, Stanford rushed for 240 yards and its offensive line dominated. The Cardinal ranks fourth in the conference in rushing with 208.5 yards per game.

Run defense is one of Arizona State's most improved areas. It ranks fourth in the conference against the run, yielding 133.5 yards per game.

That said: Arizona rushed for 249 yards on Saturday in the Sun Devils 58-21 win. Know that the Cardinal coaches will want to test that first.

If the Sun Devils can slow the Cardinal running game, it probably likes its chances with Kevin Hogan throwing the ball. The Sun Devils 36 sacks this year rank second in the conference, though the Cardinal has yielded only 11, fewest in the conference.

While the third Pac-12 title game isn't what most expected, Stanford at Arizona State seems a fitting way to conclude a Pac-12 season that included many unexpected swings of momentum.